WASHINGTON — A U.S. appeals court cleared the way Friday for continued federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells, a ruling that scientists hailed as a victory for medical progress.
Stem cells from embryos are believed to hold great promise for treating hard-to-treat illnesses or conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or spinal cord injuries. But the research itself remains controversial because it makes use of cells from early-stage embryos.
"I am delighted and relieved to learn of the decision," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. "This is a momentous day — not only for science, but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research."
Last year, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth surprised scientists by ordering a temporary halt to new research grants. He said this funding appeared to violate a 15-year-old congressional ban on using federal money for research in "which embryos are destroyed."
Since 1999, the NIH had interpreted this ban more narrowly. Its lawyers said stem cells are not "embryos." No federal funds may be used to destroy embryos while extracting stem cells, they said, but the funds may be used for research on stem cells that already exist.
The U.S. court of appeals in Washington, which blocked Lamberth's injunction while it considered an appeal, called this an "entirely reasonable" interpretation of the law. And when in doubt, the judges say they defer to an agency's long-standing view. The 2-1 decision reversed Lamberth and said the research funding may continue.
Several states, including California, Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland, have used their own money to fund embryonic stem cell research. But leaders in those states say steady federal funding is important.
"A stop-start approach is not good for research," said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco. He said last year's ruling had blocked grants to several scientists, and the researchers considered moving their work in another direction, he said.
"Federal funding is still the engine that drives this train," said Sidney Golub, an expert on stem cell research policy at the University of California, Irvine. "That's why this decision is very important."